Ron Brown and Michael A. Brown: Amid a father’s legacy, a son’s own path

Michael A. Brown moved easily through the morning crowd of more than 400 that filled the staging area in front of the Commerce Department and spilled onto 14th Street for the naming of Ron Brown Way.

“Hey, buddy, I worked for your dad,” someone called out.

“I loved this man,” someone else said, rushing over to shake hands.

It was part of a spate of tributes to mark the 15th anniversary of the day that a plane carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others on a trade mission crashed into a Croatian hillside.

There will be a commemoration at the crash site April 4, and Tuesday, at a dedication for a new U.N. mission building in New York named in Brown’s honor, President Obama said, “I’m president in part because of him — because of the example he set, because of the organization that he brought to the Democratic Party.”

At the street-naming Friday, Michael Brown, the tallest man in the crowd, stepped to the microphone, and spectators honored the father by paying rapt attention to the son. He acknowledged his mother, Alma, and sister, Tracey Brown James, and talked about his father’s vision of economic empowerment and his legacy of inclusion.

Ron Brown was the first African American commerce secretary, as well as an icon of Washington’s black political class about whom Bill Clinton once wrote, “I could not have become president without Ron Brown.” He led trade missions and was a player on the world stage.

Shortly after 10:30 Friday, the two brand-new street signs were unveiled simultaneously, and Michael Brown, 46, an at-large D.C. Council member for the past two years, playfully pointed to the efficiency of the D.C. government. His is an intensely local focus, because that’s his stage.

Since the commerce secretary’s death, Michael Brown has often had to be a vessel for the grief and expectations of others, while finding his own way forward without his father’s guidance. And the journey has, at times, tripped him up.

Like a generation of Washington insiders and common folks alike, Brown embraces the larger-than-life legacy of his father.

But he has also struggled with its burden.

“It’s hard when folks say, ‘Who is the next Ron Brown?’ ” he said. “Just like it’s hard to say, ‘Who is the next [Michael] Jordan?’ ”

Ron Brown was on a mission to help connect U.S. businessmen to trade opportunities in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia when he died in 1996.

The trip was his 19th ambitious world-trade mission, including a historic one to South Africa, since Clinton appointed him commerce secretary in 1993. He brought vision and muscularity to a Cabinet position that often lacked vigor.

It was the latest laurel in a career filled with dexterity and intention.

Tragic end to pioneering career

Brown grew up in Harlem, where his father managed the storied Hotel Theresa, which catered to the black sports, entertainment and intellectual elite, and where Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) was once a desk clerk. He learned from his father the importance of always looking ironed, creased and well-groomed. And he passed that lesson on to his son.

He was educated in nearly all-white Manhattan elementary and prep schools, and later at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where his national fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, was suspended for granting Brown membership. After college and Army stints in Germany and South Korea, he attended St. John’s Law School at night and later gained renown on Capitol Hill through his work with the National Urban League. After working on the 1980 presidential campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), he became chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and, later, the first black partner at the powerful D.C. lobbying firm Patton Boggs & Blow.

His work in 1988 smoothing relations between presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis before the Democratic convention helped him springboard to national prominence. After the election, he promised the demoralized party that Democrats could win again, as he made a historic run for Democratic National Committee chair. He won, and in the three years before he helped Clinton win the White House, he changed the face of the party.

Opening the party’s doors

“When Brown walked in the room, his presence gave the impression that he understood his sense of self, what he was bringing to the party and to the president,” said Minyon Moore, a principal at the Dewey Square Group public affairs firm who was a senior political adviser in the Clinton White House and in Jackson’s presidential campaigns.

Brown helped empower a class of black and brown people who hadn’t been invited inside the party infrastructure, she said. “That was the beauty of having the wind behind you. You came in with a sense of boldness, a sense of intention. You were so sure you were supposed to be there, that you had no fear of bringing other people with you.”

And it wasn’t just senior staffers — Brown contracted minority caterers, printers and busi­ness people in all facets of the DNC operation.

Tina Flournoy, who was a lawyer for the DNC when Brown took over, notes that “at the Democratic convention in 1992, the CEO was Alexis Herman” — whom Clinton later appointed secretary of labor — “the general counsel was Tina Flournoy, an African American woman; the convention manager was Mario Cooper, an African American man; the hall manager in charge of the construction and building for the convention was Maxine Griffith, an African American woman. Those were all decisions made by Ron Brown.”

Maria Cardona, a principal at Dewey Square, was the Commerce Department’s deputy press secretary in 1996 and was supposed to be on the plane for that fateful Croatia trip. A wall in her office is filled with pictures from Brown’s world travels. Her voice cracks as she talks about the late secretary, and she fans her eyes. It gets like that when people talk about Brown.

“As a young Latina in a white man’s world, Ron was my mentor and my guide,” Cardona said. He was ahead of his time. “He knew he needed to reach out to the Latino community,” and he hired her at the DNC as assistant press secretary in charge of Hispanic media. “But the next promotion he gave me was as press secretary in charge of all media. He did not pigeonhole me, which is something that happens a lot. ”

Political strategist Donna Brazile, a vice chair at the Democratic National Committee, talks about how deftly Brown moved between the ordinary and the famous. She becomes reflective remembering what he meant to her. “Just now I wanted to choke up,” she said. “I was in my early 20s when he took me under his wings and said, ‘Okay, I gotta help you.’ ” Back then, “I was a flame-thrower, just to see the glow.” Brown became a role model. “I just wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the assistant House Democratic leader, recalled that Brown spearheaded the redistricting efforts that nearly doubled the size of the Congressional Black Caucus and propelled him to his seat. Once in Birmingham, when a group of black politicians was reluctant to support Clinton for president, Brown told the group that they were too caught up “in the politics of feeling good, and I would hope we would get real about the politics of success.” Clyburn called it a crystallizing moment.

Just as Brown had met and learned to be comfortable around the famous, infamous and elite who passed through his father’s hotel, he was deliberate about exposing his children, Tracey and Michael, to the “Ron Brown way.” In his father’s run for DNC chair, “my job was to get people on the phone first; party chairs, senators, we had call time every night,” Michael Brown said. He’d ring influentials, chat them up and keep them on the phone until Ron Brown could jump on.

Michael Brown spent the hours before Election Day 1992 on a plane with his father and Clinton, making campaign stops all night.

In an e-mail Sunday, Clinton recalled that Democrats had lost three straight presidential elections, but “Ron announced that in 1992 the world’s oldest political party would win the White House again, when no one thought we had a chance.” Clinton said Brown was relentless in his party-building, “and his optimism was contagious.”

“He never thought he was better than people who were serving his food, cleaning the streets or struggling to get an education or find a job. He really did see everyone. . . . His great gifts were a fine mind and a big heart. They enabled him to be both idealistic and practical, to fight for his beliefs and work across party lines for honorable compromises.” It remains a rare combination in politics, Clinton said.

It is a still a source of speculation, what could he have been — secretary of state, vice president or, perhaps, the first black president — if he’d lived.

It is part of what gave rise to the rampant conspiracy theories about his death, and the swirl of allegations that preoccupied his final years.

Accusations and theories

At the time the 23-year-old CT-43A aircraft carrying Brown and 34 others went down in heavy rain on the side of a mountain in Dubrovnik, Croatia, critics were charging that he had used Commerce Department trips to reward prominent Democratic businessmen; his personal finances, friendships and even dealings with his son were the subject of a federal independent counsel investigation; and some close to him had urged him to step down.

According to an Air Force investigation, the accident was caused by “a failure of command, aircrew error and an improperly designed instrument approach procedure.” But Web sites purporting to show bullet wounds to Brown’s skull have popped up, as have conspiracy theories positing that he was assassinated because he knew too much about Clinton-era scandals or because, as a black man, he was too powerful.

Morris L. Reid was Brown’s confidential assistant and was slated to be on the plane, but Brown sent him ahead to Dubrovnik. About a minute after the plane disappeared from radar, panic set in, he said. “It turned into devastation.”

The conspiracy theories, Reid said, are for him “never anything to consider, given my proximity to the situation.” The downed plane had American pilots flying in bad weather into an unknown area. “I was on a Croatian government plane with experienced pilots who had flown in those conditions. That is the only explanation why my plane landed one hour and 30 minutes before his crashed.”

Once, a radio interviewer raised the question of a conspiracy to Michael Brown. “It threw me,” Brown said. “At this time we’ve seen no evidence that there was some kind of conspiracy.” The family didn’t discount the notion out of hand, but the broader point, he thinks, is that the nation saw a black political leader “command so much respect and authority on a political level in all communities,” and it was hard to deal with the enormous sense of promise lost.

It’s something Michael Brown has had to contend with — personally and professionally — for years.

‘You’re my Ronnie now’

At the D.C. Council breakfast where he announced the findings of a poll on renaming part of Pennsylvania Avenue with a slogan supporting D.C. statehood, Michael Brown, nearly 6-foot-5 — at Mackin Catholic High School, he was an all-star guard in the McDonald’s Capital Classic game and went on to play guard-forward for Clark University in Massachusetts — wore a bright yellow tie, with a matching yellow band on his G-Shock watch. His twin 17-year-olds, Morgan and Ryan, had told him he’d look younger if he took off the Rolex.

He wears custom suits, cuff links and Italian loafers, and his staff teases him for being a bit of a dandy. He keeps a 1989 cover of Ebony Man magazine, featuring himself and his father, on his office wall.

“That’s what I saw growing up,” he said. His father and his friends, “this is how they rolled.” Besides, young men in the District often don’t see black men in suits, and he’s always looking for subtle ways to expand their perceptions. And “I’m always looking for a D.C. tie-in,” he said.

The councilman, who just became a partner in the Madison Group government relations firm, is separated from his wife, Tamera, splits time with the twins, and usually keeps three BlackBerrys spread out in front of him. His days are spent dashing between meetings, public and media appearances, and phone calls, with barely time to scarf down a Filet-O-Fish in his Hummer in between. “In my schedule, there’s no distinction between Monday through Thursday and Friday through Sunday, and I love it,” he said.

Brown ran unsuccessfully for mayor and a Ward 4 council seat before being elected to an at-large position in 2008. He won’t say directly whether another bid for mayor is in his future, but he notes that people ask him, often in conjunction with memories of his father. As a council member, he chairs the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development and led the Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination, and co-chairs the subcommittee on redistricting. He said he wants to focus on his priorities: jobs, safety-net issues for the poor and support for local businessmen.

When Brown appeared last week at a protest outside a Chipotle restaurant where several workers were disputing their firings, local activist Arturo Griffiths came over to introduce himself. “Your dad would have been proud,” he said.

Almost immediately upon his father’s death, Brown was saddled with expectation. Much of it his own.

Right after the crash, “I didn’t really have time to grieve, we just kind of got to work,” he said. He delivered the news to his grandmother. “She looked at me and said, ‘You’re my Ronnie now.’

“I said, ‘Whoa.’ ”

Critics have said Michael Brown traded on his name to get elected. Some wonder why Ron Brown’s son isn’t a diplomat, chief executive or university president, why he hasn’t had a big national footprint. He’s had some high-profile missteps, including a misdemeanor charge of illegally funneling campaign contributions more than a decade ago, and more recently questions about his payment of D.C. taxes. “I’ve made mistakes,” he said, but that doesn’t mean you stop moving forward or doing what you’re supposed to do. “Self-correction is a part of life.”

Maria Cardona said it’s taken Brown awhile to find his footing. “Clearly that is understandable, given the trauma of his loss, and of course we all think we will always have our parents around to guide us and mentor us.”

Brown is “ambitious and wants to make a name for himself. He has a lot to offer in terms of politics, but I’m sure being Ron Brown’s son is a privilege as well as a burden,” she said. People load you up with their own need for legacy, but Brown’s path has to be his own. “It’s hard to get him to talk about the burden part, but it’s only natural that there are two sides of the coin.”

Kent Amos lived next door to the Browns for 18 years and is among the people Michael Brown credits with mentoring him after his father’s death. After Ron Brown died, Amos said, Michael worked with the DNC and on projects in Africa. “He was looking for his own pathway by following what his father had done,” Amos said, but Brown had to find his stage. His father grown up toggling between Harlem and Manhattan. He’d gone to school in Vermont and lived in Germany and Korea. Ron was worldly, but Michael “came along as a city kid. Part of the churn was saying it’s okay to be the local guy.” And in that capacity, Amos said, he has the makings of an outstanding councilman.

Outside a meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Brown shifts uncomfortably in his seat at questions about his burdens. He’d rather be ticking off a list of things he’s involved with in the District. He finally allows that he’s drawn to national politics, but that was his father’s thing, “his passion. I like the local politics. I like going into a barbershop on MLK and saying hello, and Foxhall and Georgetown and saying hello and hearing their problems.” He goes to conventions and works on campaigns, but while his father wanted “to make America a better place and focus on people at the low end of the totem pole, my passion is making D.C. a better place and helping people on the low end of the totem pole.”

And who’s to say that’s not a big enough job?

Almost on cue, he jumps up, returning to the WMATA meeting to talk about his position as an alternate on the board. “It’s an important role, and when the fare increase happened, I walked into meetings and people said, ‘Why’d you vote for the fare increase?’ I didn’t say I’m an alternate.”

Sitting back down later, he grins. “How did I sound?” he asks. When pressed to offer anything more on legacy, responsibility and precisely how he sees his future, he demurs.

“I’ve told you everything my father would want me to say.”

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